Advancing transparency where it’s missing

The proposed Knesset bill on NGOs should require full disclosure for ‘all’ organizations regarding ‘all’ the sources of their foreign funding.

An Israeli NGO launches a public relations campaign supported with foreign funding. Online and print ads, billboards, and lots of expensive PR assistance. Estimated price tag: $500,000. Source of funding: unknown.
Reading reports by The Institute for Zionist Strategies or listening to NGO Monitor, one may presume that such mysterious campaigns are impacting Israeli public opinion, opaquely supported by unidentified “foreign state entities”.
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Under such dire circumstances, who would object to legislation headlined “Foreign Government NGO Funding Transparency,” such as the one advanced by MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud)? Well, the circumstances are indeed dire – but for reasons very different than those portrayed by the champions of McCarthyism in Israel.
And so, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is opposed to such legislation.
The above-mentioned campaign is not funded by a “foreign state entity” – the Orwellian label now attached to funding from friendly democracies in support of advancing the cause of human rights and democracy in Israel. In fact, in recent months Israelis have witnessed an unprecedented barrage of anti-democratic campaigns, from Im Tirzu to the Land of Israel Forum. All of these campaigns are funded by unknown sources, and for all of them the target of attack is the New Israel Fund, the progressive foundation that, over the past generation, has contributed more than any other source to the building of a thriving civil society in Israel; one that is working for social justice, equality, and human rights.
ACRI is the very proud flagship grantee of NIF.
For example, because NIF supports a grassroots initiative for a more equitable distribution of the revenues from the recent natural gas discoveries in Israel’s coastal waters, the current campaign leaps to blame NIF for somehow supporting Israel’s dependence on Arab energy sources. No mention is made of the broad-based support for royalties more in line with what energy companies pay elsewhere, just the hysterical claim of subversive behavior. The claim itself is as groundless as it is unintelligible, but the fact remains: no one knows who is funding this campaign.
Similarly, as recently reported in The New York Times (“Tax-Exempt Funds Aid Settlements in West Bank,” July 5, 2010), the sources of many privately-funded organizations affiliated with extremist settlers in Israel and the occupied territories remains opaque.
So, here are the facts: current funding from “foreign state entities” is already transparent; all programs and organizations receiving grants from other governments already report that funding in full.
The so-called “transparency bill” is thus redundant since the goal of transparency, at least as far as funding from foreign states is concerned, has been already achieved through existing legislation.
FURTHER, THIS bill doesn’t follow the real money. The shocking fact is that the amount spent by unknown, private funders in recent months, in support of extremeright causes in Israel, have by themselves already dwarfed in scope any campaign ever launched by an Israeli human rights NGO. It is safe to estimate, for instance, that an amount equal to or greater than ACRI’s entire annual budget has been spent in recent months on the anti-NIF campaigns. However, ACRI’s and other human rights NGOs sources of funding are completely transparent. They are reported on a regular basis to the registrar of non-profits, posted on the registrar’s website as well as ACRI’s, and are, as they indeed should be, publicly available information.
NIF, too, issues its complete financial statements and makes them available on its websites, while earning high marks for accountability from American philanthropic watchdogs. It is the funding of those wishing to silence Israel’s human rights groups that is hidden from the public – and yet NGO Monitor keeps chanting “foreign state entities” as if no one will look behind the curtain.
At Monday’s hearing at the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, it seemed that this point finally got through to many of the MKs, even if not to NGO Monitor. The law should require full transparency for all types of organizations regarding all the sources of their foreign funding.
MK David Rotem, the committee’s chairperson, made the surprising promise, that he will not advance the bill unless and until it included language stipulating that the reporting requirements will indeed apply to any funding from a foreign source. Such a bill would indeed be in support of legitimate public interests, and not camouflage for legislating McCarthyist visions in Israel of 2010.
In the current public climate, the unfortunate project of undoing Israeli democracy continues. The Elkin bill is just one example of ACRI’s list of “the top 14 anti-democratic bills of the Knesset’s 2010 summer session.”
The anti-democratic campaigns continue, most recently with Im Tirzu’s ultimatum to Ben-Gurion University to “correct” the “tilt in the makeup of the [politics and government] department’s faculty and the content of its syllabi” – or else.
Israeli democracy is slipping, fast.
ACRI will continue fighting for human rights, democracy, and equality. We will continue reporting on these developments, continue fighting anti-democratic legislation, appealing to the courts, and mobilizing the public in support of our values and vision. Israel will, eventually, change course. Stay tuned.
The writer is executive director of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).